Increases occurred among all ages, races, and geographic groups, but were particularly high for youth suicides and overdoses among certain populations of color
(Washington, DC – May 24, 2023) – The rate of U.S. deaths due to alcohol, drugs, and suicide climbed 11 percent in 2021, according to Pain in the Nation 2023: The Epidemics of Alcohol, Drug, and Suicide Deaths, a new report released today by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH).
While an all-time record, 209,225 Americans lost their lives due to alcohol, drugs or suicide last year these deaths are part of a two-decade trend of sharply increasing fatalities due to substance misuse and suicide in the U.S. The 2021 data showed such deaths were up across the U.S. population, with the largest increases occurring among certain populations of color as well as people living in the South, West, and rural regions of the country.
- Drug overdose deaths increased by 14 percent between 2020 and 2021, with larger increases among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, American Indian/Alaska Native people, and among youth and older adults. For the year, drug overdose rates were highest among adults ages 35 to 54, males, Black people, and young adults ages 18 to 34.
- Alcohol-induced deaths increased by 10 percent between 2020 and 2021, with the highest increases among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, Latino people, and American Indian/Alaska Native people.
- Suicide mortality increased by 4 percent between 2020 and 2021, with the highest increases among American Indian/Alaska Native people and Black people.
While the 2021 trends were not good news, they were an improvement over the 2020 data. For 2020, the number of alcohol, drug, and suicide deaths was up 20 percent as compared with 2019.
“The data continue to show alarming increases in deaths due to substance misuse and suicide,” said J. Nadine Gracia, M.D., MSCE, President and CEO of Trust for America’s Health. “What is needed is urgent and sustained investment in policies and programs that prevent the root causes of substance misuse and suicidality. We need to prevent adverse childhood experiences and trauma and support mental health services in schools, within healthcare settings, and in community settings for all populations.”
Two Decades Overview
Deaths due to alcohol, drugs, and suicide have been on the rise for over two decades, doubling over the period from 104,379 deaths in 2011 to 209,225 in 2021. Between 2016 and 2021, the escalation in the rate of drug overdose deaths was more than 60 percent. These increases disproportionately impacted Black and Latino populations.
Most of the upturn in deaths due to drug overdose involved opioid overdose, with additional deaths due to cocaine and psychostimulants. In addition, a new and growing threat is xylazine, a tranquilizer approved for veterinary use but mixed with fentanyl to create a highly toxic illicit drug combination.
During the last two decades alcohol and suicide deaths have also increased, but not as sharply as drug deaths.
Youth Suicide Risk
Over the last decade, alcohol, drug, and suicide deaths among youth ages 10 to 17 increased by 65 percent. While youth have a much lower suicide rate than the general population, the upward trend of youth suicide, beginning well before the COVID-19 pandemic—a 71 percent increase tween 2010 and 2021—is tragic and warrants immediate attention. Unlike for other age groups, an increase in suicide deaths among young people was the primary driver for the age group’s increased overall mortality.
American Indian/Alaska Native and LGBTQ youth are most at risk for poor mental health and suicidal behaviors.
Veteran Suicide Risk
Veteran suicide risk also needs immediate attention. The suicide mortality rate for veterans was 32 deaths per 100,000 veterans in 2020, a much higher rate than the general population.
Evidence-based Programs Can Help Reverse Deaths of Despair Trends
In response to the growing deaths of despair crisis, a multifaceted approach to improving mental health and well-being in every community is needed. The report includes recommendations for steps federal, state, and local government and other stakeholders should take to address substance misuse and suicide deaths. The recommendations include:
- Invest in prevention programs and conditions that promote health including programs that prevent or reduce adverse childhood experiences and provide trauma-informed services, student mental health services in schools, and strengthened crisis intervention programs, including the 988 crisis lifeline.
- Prevent substance misuse and overdose by supporting syringe service programs, increasing naloxone and fentanyl test strips availability, and expanding funding for the Drug-Free Communities Support Program to bolster prevention programs for youth specifically.
- Transform the mental health and substance use prevention system by increasing access to mental health and substance use healthcare through full enforcement of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, integrating mental health and substance use treatment with other healthcare services, and expanding culturally and linguistically appropriate care for populations of color and other underserved populations.
Trust for America’s Health is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes optimal health for every person and community and makes the prevention of illness and injury a national priority.